Purple tulip trees and California poppies are blooming everywhere, announcing that spring is in full swing with all its bounty. Fields are full of new fruits and vegetables that ripen with each warm day. Indeed, the season is an invitation to serve up what’s popping up from the ground—colorful salads, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes and bowls of fresh peas or strawberries. But no other crop defines spring like asparagus, making its appearance from March through June in grocery aisles and local farmers markets.
Location is a key reason asparagus and other spring produce, such as delectable strawberries and cherries, are so readily available in Benicia. In addition to the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, Central Coast and San Joaquin Valley, agriculture is big business in Solano County where farmers grow walnuts, almonds, wine grapes and olives, and tomatoes for processing.
The opening of the Benicia Certified Farmers Market announces loud and clear that the season’s fresh, local produce has arrived. The market gets underway 4-8 p.m. Thursday, April 28 and runs every Thursday through Oct. 27. Located on First Street between B and D Streets, in addition to farm-fresh produce, market offerings include an array of freshly baked goods, specialty gourmet foods and fresh-cut flowers. Tucked in amongst the produce booths are children’s activities and community groups. The market draws hundreds of people each week, who not only shop, but also come to socialize, listen to live music and enjoy the views of the Carquinez Strait and rolling hills beyond.
In May, the Benicia farmers market will offer beans, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cucumbers, eggplants, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, peppers and spinach, and colorful California fruits. Perennial favorites are tangy cherries, strawberries bursting with flavor and yellow and white peaches that practically melt in your mouth. According to Benicia Main Street, blueberries, cantaloupe, raspberries, nectarines, plums and pluots will also be available. Later in the growing season, shoppers will find tomatoes, corn, persimmons, figs, pumpkins, watermelons, plums and apples.
Spring offers many possibilities to introduce farm-fresh produce into any meal. Get creative with variations on the classic parfait, which traditionally includes ice cream layered with canned fruit and nuts, garnished with whipped cream. A healthier version can make a good breakfast—simply layer or mix fresh fruit (blueberries, strawberries or peaches) with plain yogurt, chopped almonds or crunchy granola. Leave out the added sugar, or substitute local honey, available at Pedrotti Ace Hardware. Pack the mixture into a mason jar for breakfast on the go. Salads are a spring and summer staple; enhance them with a few stalks of asparagus, raw, baked or lightly steamed. Asparagus is a versatile food that adds panache to many dishes. Try it in tacos, quiche or a stir-fry, or add to pasta dishes or a frittata. It’s also a great accompaniment to eggs Benedict. Just be sure to serve Asparagus within two or three days after purchase, as it doesn’t last long. Here’s a quick recipe for oven-roasted asparagus from allrecipies.com.
• 1 bunch thin asparagus spears, trimmed
• 3 tbsp. high-temp cooking oil such as sunflower, coconut or grapeseed
• 2 tbsp. parmesan cheese (can be omitted)
• 1 clove garlic, minced
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 tsp. ground black pepper
• 1 tbsp. lemon juice
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place asparagus in a mixing bowl, drizzle with olive oil. Toss to coat spears, then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, garlic, salt and pepper. Arrange asparagus in a baking sheet in a single layer. Bake until just barely tender, 12 to 15 minutes depending on thickness. Sprinkle with lemon juice and serve.